Education Professor Bill Durden Discusses Challenges, Opportunities for 21st-Century Universities

By Andrew R. Koch

Virtually every college and university in the U.S. hosts some type of orientation for first-year students. However, one local education professor says those orientations at the start of a college student’s freshman year simply aren’t enough to ensure they succeed in getting a higher education.

Bill Durden, the president emeritus and a professor of liberal arts at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania—and a professor in the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University—was the keynote speaker in a presentation called “Strategies for Student Success” on April 16, in the Learning Commons Town Hall. He spoke about the opportunities and challenges that are presenting themselves to universities in the 21st century. As part of his speech, he focused on those challenges and opportunities that are results of the University of Baltimore’s diverse population. Durden says while there are challenges for UB, there are also “huge opportunities”—if they’re crafted in the right way. He explained how the university is taking steps to ensure its new students can fully succeed in getting their college education

“It’s informing students more from the beginning how to move through the system, where is information, how to get it, removing obstacles to getting all of that,” Durden said. “It is about crafting an environment that’s committed to a larger purpose. It just can’t be the one-off. It has to be ‘what’s the bigger story?’ And I think once you get a variety of students behind a larger story, things become clearer than they are.”

Durden explained how statistics show that 60 percent of first-year college students find that they’re not ready for a post-secondary education, despite being declared ready by their high schools. He says this is because educators have shifted away from teaching skills to encouraging students to “express themselves,” and are lowering their standards to “achieve the appearance of achievement,” and have surrendered to the “self-esteem movement” and its rhetoric, which promotes a sense of accomplishments among students without really accomplishing anything. As a result, college and university remedial programs aren’t yielding the retention results that the institutions expect.

Durden described the evolution of American education from colonial times all the way up through the modern era. He explained that the first colleges and universities in the colonies were strictly vocational because they trained ministers. In the modern era, Durden described how he was the first person in his family to go to college, and how a substantive liberal arts education was viable to changing one’s social status in life (he described how Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates based many of his accomplishments on a solid liberal arts education). Durden said his family wanted what the elite of that time took for granted. He studied abroad as a junior in high school because his parents believed that, in time, the world would become more globally connected.

However, Durden says now, with a high number of first-year students coming from such diverse backgrounds, the elites who encouraged a liberal arts education in previous generations are now discouraging students from getting it. He says that there’s an “either/or” attitude that emphasizes either getting a liberal arts or a vocational education, but not both, and this attitude is plaguing education just like it is in politics. Durden praised UB for being the first university in Maryland to adopt a cooperative educational and liberal arts program, much like Northeastern University in Boston. With the diversity of the student population, Durden says colleges and universities need to make sure that their students have the basic skills to succeed both in the classroom and then in the real world.

“Verbal and mathematical abilities are critical. It has to be a certain level. It has to be filled in. If you don’t have those, you’re going to be always at a deficit. It’s just gonna be a real struggle,” Durden said.

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